Working with social issues:
Over the past year I have thought a lot about the ethical implications of an art practice that deals with social issues that I have little personal experience of. It is important to me that my work is not exploitative, offensive, or claims to speak on behalf of/over anyone. I understand that as a white person living in the western world, with access to education, money, opportunities and free from fear that I will be arrested for my opinions, I occupy a place of privilege. I can therefore use this privilege to discuss and criticise injustices.
During a talk at The Stuart Hall Library in 2015, Alia Syed spoke about the politics of making art about social issues. Talking about her film On A Wing and A Prayer (2015), which was inspired by the journey that Abdul Rahman Haroun undertook when he walked from France to England through the channel tunnel. She spoke about how watching news stories about migrants/refugees living in Calais initially made her want to go there and film, but she decided that she didn’t want these people to just become images in a narrative.
We often become desensitised to the images we see over and over again on the news. I decided to limit the images of people in my Yarl’s Wood film – there is some footage from inside the centre, filmed by channel 4, but this does not reveal identities. I think it is important also to look inward: to realise that the politics of mobility and the exploitation of vulnerable asylum seekers is not something that just effects people in far away places, but is something that happens here, at home.
A Word on the Voice:
I decided that my film should be led by a written text that would be recorded as a voiceover, in order to encompass the breadth of the topic. I felt that the voiceover should be read by myself and that this was the right choice, but at the same time the prospect of this made me immediately feel anxious.
Speaking has always been a struggle for me. I hate public speaking. I hate speaking to strangers. I hate speaking on the phone. Any situation that involves speaking to anyone other than close friends is a source of anxiety and stress for me. Being a ‘quiet’ or socially anxious person, I have many experiences of being told to ‘speak up’, being asked “why are you so shy?” or being told that I have a “very soft voice” (oh thanks for pointing that out to me…). Having these things publicly highlighted only lessens my confidence and I often dwell on people’s comments for a long time.
Aside from social anxiety, I have also felt self-conscious of my voice being too high-pitched or ‘girly’ and have worried that this may undermine what I am actually saying. But when I decided to do the voiceover I knew that I had to speak convincingly, and that the audience would not have confidence in what I was saying if I didn’t myself. Putting my voice on the film was daunting but I felt that it was integral to the piece.
In recent years there has also been public discussion of women’s voices, especially in regards to ‘vocal fry’; most notably heard in young American female’s speech, which has been described as an ‘epidemic’ that is holding women back from getting ahead in the workplace because they sound ‘stupid’ or annoying (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/24/vocal-fry-strong-female-voice). Whilst I am not particularly a fan of the vocal fry, I think that the reaction against it is an example of people policing women’s speech. The exaggerated vocal fry and ‘uptalk’ is almost exclusive to women, so it doesn’t surprise me to find that it is held in such contempt, in the same way that women’s bodies have been for centuries. To publicly shame someone for their voice, or to assume that they are ‘air-headed’ or uneducated because of how they talk says a lot more about the listener than the speaker. To feel undermined, scrutinised and dismissed is often a part of the female experience, and it’s getting tedious.
Whilst I have never been accused of sounding stupid or of using vocal fry, I do identify with the feeling of being criticised for the way I speak. And this makes me angry!! I could have changed my film, or found another person to read my voiceover, but I am tired of always being at the mercy of my anxiety. Why should my opinions be any less valid because my voice sounds young and feminine? My voice, and what I have to say is as important as anyone else’s and I shouldn’t feel shamed into modifying myself because of others. The issues that I explore in my practice are important to me and not speaking about them would being doing myself a disservice. Yarl’s Wood is about power, structures and the silencing of the people behind immigration detention centre walls. I hope that my work helps to make others feel heard and empowered, in the same way that the filmmaking process has for me.